Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Help: All You Wanted to Know

Having grown up in mostly the same time/same place--or pretty close to it-- as the characters in the runaway best seller THE HELP, I'm continually asked what I think of the novel. Now that more and more Book Groups are discussing the book, I'm asked even more. When the movie is out, I'm sure I'll take up my role as explainer of the truth of the times. This was a role I accepted when I left the South and moved to Massachusetts in the late 60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its most divisive. Back then, I continually defended and sometimes even trashed my home state. Then when I finally figured that everybody's home state had its own set of problems, I let go of some of my negative energy and went with the flow. But now with the publication of The Help (which I truly enjoyed on many levels), I'm back to answering questions. So if you've found this blog post on a search and are looking for answers, you've come to the right place.

In a recent chat session with some Mississippi women, past and present residents that I know and love, we all had strong and slightly different takes on the book. I'll share a few here. These are not necessarily my own opinions, FYI:

The character Hilly was totally false to me. I never knew any debutante, high school sorority sister, or Junior League member in Mississippi who would be so concerned with Blacks using a different bathroom that they would act as Hilly did. Her actions just did not fit the typical Southern women I have known. I think it ruined the book for me because I thought there had to be a better, more realistic way to create the needed tension. I HAVE known mean people who have created trouble for others for no apparent reason other than meanness, so that was realistic to me. But Hilly working for Black people to go to separate bathrooms in the homes where they worked, and some of her other actions, didn't ring true to me. If anything, the girls I knew who would have been activists would have been pro integration!
Now, wouldn't it be interesting if someone interviewed the author and SHE knew some Southern woman who was obsessed as Hilly was------

(Another friend spoke up:)
I agree with you about Hilly. I just wanted to slap her!!

(We focused a lot on Hilly:)
Hilly seems way too much. I'd forgotten the way she campaigned about the toilets. I can't imagine anyone doing that.

(And another:)
I liked the maids a whole lot better than I liked those tacky White People..
I think there were probably people of our grandmother and mother's generation who acted like Hilly, rather than anybody I knew, our age or Hilly's age. But you have to remember that older generation was raised by parents who remembered, vividly, slavery and the Civil War, if only via stories their own grandparents told. Times did change for us all, didn't they.

(Still more:)
I felt that the story was good and told from a different "slant."
However, the characters were stereotypical and the story told almost as another gratuitous Mississippi bashing. By doing so, she trivialized the message. If it has made us look deeper at our past history and relationships, then it has served a purpose. It was good entertainment, but Stockett was in over her head. Rather than a "chick book" for book clubs, it could have been an outstanding piece of literature. The sad thing is that people from other parts of the country will read this book as a documentary instead of fiction. Poor Mississippi. The state is like that proverbial blade of grass that gets mowed down every time it sticks its head up.

(And this from another:)
I will say, I am glad that I read the book. I won't say that I thought it was as glorious, wise and poignant as those who critiqued the book on its dust jacket.I feel that perhaps most of Stockett's characters were over-stated.... the good ones were TOO good, the bad ones were TOO
bad...I could have used more subtlety...I personally find it hard to believe that a female, (even though formally educated) in the deep south in 1962 could have been that aware. Hindsight and knowledge and history and facts and research have been necessary for most of us to become aware of that unique time.. We were so protected.

(In conclusion:)
One of the interesting parts of the book for me is the way it's produced a cultural dialog about our racial past in the South. It was a very compelling book to me, a gutsy book. Those first person voices are very powerful.

Yes, a cultural dialog for sure, even among old friends.

And these comments, from a Book Group discussion a friend in Baltimore (made up of a few Southerners and a few who aren't) related to me:
Most of the group enjoyed the book on some level. Some thought it was merely entertaining, some thought it was enlightening. The greatest difference of opinion seemed to be regarding how the characters were depicted. Generally, most thought that the black women were well developed and interesting characters, although some felt that in real life, they would have been too afraid to speak up as they did in the book. Many thought the white women seemed unrealistic and stereotypical and more shallow and uniformed than college graduates would have been.. I thought this was interesting, given the fact that the book was written by a white woman, who should have had a better understanding of other white women than the black women she so beautifully portrayed.

Most of the group applauded the author's portrayal of the relationships between the black women and the white children they raised and how these relationships can be affected by outside forces. They were more critical of the depiction of the relationships between Skeeter and her friends and Skeeter and her mother, feeling that they were less believable.

Those of us who listened to it liked it even better -- the audiobook is very well done. I played a few excerpts for the group so that others could hear the different voices.

Here are two reviews that might help Book Groups' discussions. Be sure to read the comments at the end of the California Literary Review!

MS Magazine Review
California Literary Review (review by an African American reviewer)

And lastly, click here for Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.


Lee Stokes Hilton said...

Interesting "chat" about The Help. My book group has it on the list for May, so I'm looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the book. I will be interested to hear what my northern friends up here in New England think. Beth

Augusta Scattergood said...

Do check in and let me hear what your book groups think!

Susan Cushman said...

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 50s and 60s (lived there until 1988) and I found most of The Help to ring very true. Although my mom wasn't in Junior League, we did have a full time maid, as did many of my friends' families. But none of them had separate bathrooms. I think Stockett captured the era, and the dialect is really excellent. When she was book-touring in Jackson, the black actress, Octavia Spencer, joined her, reading the parts of the black maids as Stockett read the parts of the white employees. Class act--both of them. Can't wait to see the movie.

Augusta Scattergood said...

I so agree that the dialect/ Stockett's ear was just perfect. As my friend noted in her assessment on the blogpost, listening to the book was a treat (I don't really listen to books but she played me some of this one). I heard about Spencer reading at Lemuria in Jax, how good she was. Yes, I too can't wait for the movie. Hope they do it right. I understand some young Mississippians, friends of the author, are involved. All good!

Augusta Scattergood said...

Check out today's blog post. I heard Stockett speak at an event this week: